National survey reveals ongoing effect of coronavirus on scientific discovery

A survey by the Australian Academy of Science’s Early-and-Mid Career Researcher (EMCR) Forum has presented harrowing statistics on the ramifications of COVID-19 on the future of research.

The survey found that 83% of respondents felt less productive due to the workplace changes.

Dr Yee Lian Chew is an IHMRI researcher and is an executive member of the EMCR Forum, and said that many young researchers considered leaving the field altogether.

“In scientific research, career success often depends on a steady workload of publications, citations, keynote addresses and awards, which have all taken a hit from COVID-19 restrictions,” Dr Chew said.

“Missing these targets means lower chances of future funding, and ultimately less job stability.”

The survey comes two months after the federal government announced a push to fund science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) subjects at university.

Of the 333 respondents, 83% were employed by a university, a sector which is facing mass job losses due to the pandemic.

While IHMRI is an independent medical research institute, a majority of its researchers are employed in partnership with University of Wollongong.

Dr Chew said that the government’s plan doesn’t align with the reality of today’s job losses.

“This whole idea is to encourage people to go into STEMM. If we get more students, who is going to teach them if we have all of these redundancies at this level?” asked Dr Chew.

Early career researchers are generally considered to be within ten years of completing their PhD. While she is in a junior role, Dr Chew has been training for a decade to get to her position.

She said that mass redundancies of people at her level could leave a ten year gap in research discovery.

“If we don’t have people at the universities doing the research because they’ve been made redundant, research in Australia will grind to a halt,” she explained.

Young female scientists could be the hardest hit

Polling revealed that 31% of women felt their caring responsibilities had grown, compared to 16% of male researchers.

Associate Professor Yasmine Probst is an IHMRI researcher and mother of three school-aged children. Her research was impacted like many parents by juggling work and home-schooling during lockdown, but also due to the restricting of face-to-face contact.

“Clinical studies with patients, laboratory analyses of foods and visits to childcare settings for my doctoral students ceased completely – as did our ability to engage with the Indigenous communities that we had been working with for over six years. My research with people who have multiple sclerosis moved to an online setting where possible, but some parts of the work were unable to continue,” said A/Prof Probst.

New work style needs new measures

Dr Chew explained that career acceleration in the sector not only relies on studies, but attendance at conferences, teaching and grant success.

She said that the metrics for what make a productive scientist have not changed, but this year has proven that this system needs updating, and would like to see a shift in the perception of career disruptions by decision makers in the field.

“We keep asking ourselves whether the metrics will change because of COVID. Regardless of having kids at home or other interruptions, the anxiety makes it hard to concentrate. You can’t do cutting edge research if you’re anxious all the time.”

IHMRI CEO and Executive Director Distinguished Professor David J. Adams said he recognised the toll that the pandemic had taken on young researchers.

“I have PhD students and postdoctoral fellows who had to pause their research because you just can’t do some lab work at home. I hope that funding bodies understand that these interruptions are out of their control, and that young researchers can continue this vital work,” he said.

Media contact

Lizzie Jack, Media and Content Coordinator

t: 4221 5432

e: ejack@uow.edu.au

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